Audrey Ciancioni and Margot Lumb review Todd Phillips’ divisive new take on the infamous DC villain.
This review contains minor spoilers.
The newly released Joker is dense in references to the DC Comics Universe, yet the controversy surrounding the film regards its artistic and ideological aspects, rather than the movie’s role in the existing superhero canon. Joker tells the story of how the infamous titular character could have come to be. To do so, Todd Phillips’ newest work attempts to take the form of a social critique, exhibiting society’s callous disregard for the feelings and wellbeing of the weak and the different.
The film operates on the assumption that the world is irrational and toxic, this nihilistic worldview permeating each frame. Gotham City is more than a general setting; it is alive, breathing, coughing – a character in and of itself. Transportation scenes – whether outside in buses and police cars or underground in the subway – exist somewhere between a scary dream and a beautiful nightmare. The city is the movie’s ultimate antagonist, leading souls astray and making havoc of people’s lives.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a miserable, pathos-filled freak, turns into a monster in spite of himself. Society in this filthy city, overflowing with garbage and sliced up into connected rails and roads of loneliness, is rude and violent: “They don’t give a shit about people like you,” as Arthur’s social worker aptly puts it. A group of boys assault Arthur with a sign, transforming him into a bleeding hunchback; his alleged friend, an abusive and condescending Judas named Randall, betrays him; three drunk young men gratuitously attack him on the subway. Joker forms under the twitching lights of the underground tunnel, through the repeated strikes of his head against the glass telephone booth.
Joker was heavily criticised immediately upon release, with many claiming that the film not only blames society for turning the main character into a villain but also justifies the violence he commits as a result. However, Arthur’s violence is never excused; even if it could be interpreted that he is primarily a victim of difficult circumstances, the movie does not follow that narrative. Rather, it complexly rewrites a globally famous character so that, for the first time on the big screen, we see him as the main character of his own fiction – without making him a hero.
Even if Arthur believes he is right to express his anger, this does not excuse his exerting violence. The direct proof of this is an almost unbearable tension throughout the film, close to that of a horror movie. The movements of the scrawny clown are all too straight and stretched, his laughter all too loud, his smiles too tight, the music too prominent – the movie slows to force patience when viewing the misanthropic acts it pictures (such as gratuitous bullying, fridge-bathing, and knife-slaughtering).
Arthur sometimes serves as society’s scapegoat; other times, he is merely a lost soul among millions. The character alternates between moments of seeming-innocence and open violence; moments of individual significance, others of collective uprising. Hence, although being a grown adult, he remains child-like.
Arthur laughs like a child, behaves like a child, even smokes like a scared child. He is a ridiculous caricature; a running clown with fat shoes, a Charlie-Chaplin-puppet, a dummy dancing along to piano music. He expresses everything in an extremely direct manner, creating the impression that something surprising (or shocking) could happen at any moment. Arthur’s naivety and heedlessness make him act in embarrassing ways, leading to uncomfortable moments. He becomes cartoonish in his misfortune, and the viewer is invited to mirror Gotham, reacting with guilty laughter, betraying some sense of superiority over the clown’s all-wrong moments.
Yet, Joker is not a funny movie; it is a movie about laughter. As Arthur claims in his final speech, in front of a live, rich and well-bred audience: “You choose what is funny, and what is not.” In this final scene, a wonderfully mastered mise en abyme projects the viewers onto the TV-show’s audience. We become a faceless crowd, laughing under the scenic light, watching the slow transformation of the stage into a disturbing playground for the Joker to become the star of his own act.
Joker is not a political manifesto. There is no lecture being made, no incitement of violence. If violence is indeed pictured as a rational way to deal with an overly irrational world, Todd Phillips does not present it as a good response to society’s abuses; he presents it as one possible response, leaving the spectator to decide for themselves.
Joker is a difficult movie to deal with because it operates on many levels of meaning. What we can do is define it by what it is not: it is not a critique of society and is not searching to impose itself as the one true interpretation of the character. Although this could be said of any movie, the saying “it is what you make of it” particularly fits Joker. The only valid criticism one can have? The movie provides no answers, not one.